Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Spy Dust (Nitrophenyl Pentadienal) (wikipedia.org)
61 points by boredgamer2 on May 5, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments

A modern equivalent is SmartWater, a clear fluid that a) fluoresces under UV b) is extremely difficult to wash off and c) contains a unique code for forensic identification.


I don't see how such a product should verify ownership, and I agree with the objection that a person can buy SmartWater and apply it to valuable items owned by other people.

It is the high-tech equivalent of putting your thumb in the biggest piece of pizza when your brother opens the box, to claim it as your own.

Glo Germ powder is a consumer equivalent of this:


How exactly would it be used? Presumably you're using it to mark someone you don't actually know, but then you need to actually go looking for the trail, but how do you do that if you don't know who the spy is?

1) Say you have a locked door to which you want the key. You put the dust on the doorknob. Then you check the cars in the parking lot for traces. Now you know which people have gone through the locked door and presumably have keys. Checking their backgrounds also gives you a good idea what is happening behind that door.

2) Before shredders got good. You put the luminol dust on the steering wheel of an inteligence officer's car. Then you steel the shredded paper from the base. The luminol then identifies which shreds of paper come from documents handled by the inteligence officer.

3) You dope the inteligence officer's car again. Then you look at the door punchcode panel to see which buttons he pressed. Now you are 90% of the way to knowing the code.

One of the sources also mentions tracking dogs, so it seems to have been quite multi-purpose!

Reminds me of sheep. Ever notice sheep with a colored mark on their back? They hang a bag of colored chalk under the ram. This then leaves a colored mark on the back of the sheep he has serviced.

Also known as raddle not every Ram or Tup will tolerate a harness, so sometimes powdered raddle is mixed with vegetable oil and smeared over his chest.

It gives the farmer quite a lot of information, by changing the color every 17 days (a ewe's cycle), they can detect a infertile tup, predict lambing dates, etc.

In modern dairy operations, you chalk the tail of the heifers/cows you want bred. When the animal comes into heat, other female cattle will mount her and rub off the chalk. The artificial insemination tech then knows who should get inseminated.

[6] says that "Spy Dust" was a catch-all term for compounds used this way, rather than just NPPD.

> Before shredders got good.

I would expect shredders these days to be easily defeated with a scanner and some clever algorithms. Is that not the case?

There was a DARPA challenge for this a few years ago [1]. But I would think that it would not be hard to make a shredder that could make reassembly impossible if the shredded pieces are small enough.

1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/DARPA_Shredder_Challenge_201...

The book “Billion Dollar Spy” describes the CIA’s shredder in the Cold War era Moscow station as turning documents into powder.

A safety match would do this in the real world and be much cheaper.

_Good_ shredders ingest a stack of paper several cm high and output powder.

Steel or steal?

Isn't Bluestar better than Luminol?

There's a book called "Spy Dust" about tools of the trade, which the wikipedia article links to and which has this to say on p. 121 (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Spy_Dust/U0eEd6Jc3koC?h...):

> KGB defector Yurchenko, who defected to the U.S. that same year, had confirmed that the KGB not only continued to employ spy dust, but was also experimenting with other powerful tracking substances and techniques under a top-secret umbrella program called METKA. We understood that spy dust could be used to track the Soviets' own citizens as well; it could be very useful in picking an individual out of a crowd, even at night, or in bad weather. A special light was used to illuminate and spot the tiny chemical particles, which, when used in small amounts, could be nearly invisible to the naked eye. Typically the technical readout would be performed at a chokepoint that the KGB controlled. The entrance to the U.S. Embassy compound, manned by the Soviet Militia, or a bridge over a well-traveled corridor were the sort of locations where a light and optics unit could be mounted.

The wikipedia article also mentions luminol (a different chemical), so it is hard to be sure whether references to UV refer to luminol instead. I'm not sure if both chemicals glow under UV.

Nevertheless, wikipedia also links to a NY Times article from 1986 (https://www.nytimes.com/1986/02/15/world/us-says-spy-dust-us...) which says, "The ''spy dust'' reportedly glowed under ultraviolet light." So unless the NY Times got them mixed up, it sounds like "regular" (non-luminol) spy dust glows too.

Of course, the wikipedia article also mentions a method that involves collecting a chemical sample, so it's possible they might have also used it to detect residue to check whether a spy touched some object.

Presumably you would sprinkle it on the fake secret documents that you left around for the suspected mole to finger, then you have proof who the mole is.

I guess these days they just put a dash of Polonium-210 in your tea and follow you with a Gieger counter, sends a much stronger message.

Get it on foreign embassy employees, and then if it shows up on one of your staff, you'll know they talked to that foreign embassy.

People don't necessarily touch, especially anymore and unlikely any longer.

MEMS camera "dust" with a/v recording, storage, and GNSS would be nice.

The Wikipedia article gave me the impression that the "read" method is still a Russian secret.

They tagged people they knew.

Spray on a known or suspected spy, swab places of their suspected contacts.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact